Public transportation

Good News: Public Transit Is About to Collapse


The Magic School Bus

A bunch of public policy and urban policy analysts got together on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., yesterday to discuss the problems with urban transit. It's no great secret that public transit is inefficient, expensive, and wasteful. In fact, American cities have spent nearly $100 billion building rails over the past 40 years, Cato Institute Senior Fellow Randal O'Toole reports, and average projects go about 40 percent over budget while dramatically underperforming on ridership and revenue.

Yesterday at the Cato event, O'Toole analyzed a popular alternative to buses—streetcars—and concluded in his newest analysis that money would be better spent improving existing modes of transport, through things like street repair and traffic coordination. (O'Toole has written a series of policy analyses tearing various aspects of public transit to shreds.)

The prospect of saving the system by handing major components of it off to private industry is appealing, but according to Florida State University's Sam Staley—a Reason contributor and one of yesterday's speakers—the entire transit model is so broken that even full privatization would not be enough to keep mass transit as we know it from spiraling into decay and financial ruin. He clarified after the briefing that even in the best of circumstances, mass transit only has about two decades left before it completely crumbles and burns.

"There will be ashes," Staley says. "There may even be some charred remains."

At this point, trying to open transit to competition may wind up harming the overall cause of privatization. Policy makers might even become more hostile to free market solutions, Staley says, if they witness an industry collapse just as free market solutions are finally implemented. The best hope for mass transit in the long term may be to wait out the inevitable crash, and then hope to find something useful among the charred remains.

For more Reason on what America can learn from Chinese transportation, go here. Read about private roads here. For more on the private sector solving transport problems, go here.

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  1. DC Metro can collapse as long as that means I get to telework full time, cause I’m not fucking driving to work.

    1. So have your valet get your personal driver off his lazy ass and make him work for his pittance. What kind of libertarian are you?

      1. I have no personal driver. I disposed of the last one when he got me into trouble for some bullshit like “Driving without a license.” How do they expect me to get my slave children licenses at the age of 10? Fucking cops.

    2. Yeah, really. For most people in DC, the Metro system is the only option. You ride it because you have to.

  2. Is Thompson just being hyperbolic in his summary, or is O’Toole seriously arguing there will be no subway or bus systems left in 20 years?

    1. I suspect that here in Massachusetts, the price of inspection stickers will hit $500 before anyone even thinks of shutting down the MBTA.

    2. No public transportation.The rail systems might be salvaged in whole or in part by privatization. The private sector is perfectly capable of operating buses and jitneys.

      1. But that’s not what Thompson is saying. Lines like “the entire transit model is so broken that even full privatization would not be enough to keep mass transit as we know it from spiraling into decay and financial ruin” suggest that we’re supposed to believe even private busses will not be around in 20 years. That assertion seems ridiculous to me, and I’m wondering if that was O’Toole was actually saying, or of Thompson is misrepresenting him.

        1. Thanks for the question. That was not O’Toole who said that, you will notice, but Staley. And he expressed that he is uncertain that mass transit in any current form will exist in a couple of decades. That is not to say that it will not exist, but that the model and the methods of transport will need to drastically change, to the point of being unrecognizable, and that such change is not possible under current management, nor could it be. I hope that helps.

      2. What’s a jitney?

        1. It’s mass transit version of “the short bus”:


          1. You have experience riding short buses, I take it.

  3. Well, they could encourage more telecommuting and maybe supply Segways to poor people. Or maybe jetpacks. Mass individual transit.

    I, of course, recommend the construction of a giant pneumatic tube network for human and cargo transport.

    1. Futurama fan Pro Lib?

    2. I, of course, recommend the construction of a giant pneumatic tube network for human and cargo transport.

      Way to think small. You’re obviously in the pocket of Big Tube, holders of all the teleportation device patents that will never see the light of day.

      1. Well, maybe a small stipend.

    3. I prefer harnessing delinquent student loan debtors to carts.

  4. The best hope for mass transit freedom in the long term may be to wait out the inevitable crash [of statism], and the[n] hope to find something useful among the charred remains.

  5. Public projects cost more and underperform as promised. This is a microcosm of U.S. Governments.

  6. “Sam Staley?a Reason contributor and one of yesterday’s speakers?the entire transit model is so broken that even full privatization would not be enough to keep mass transit as we know it from spiraling into decay and financial ruin.”

    How much ruin is there in public transit? Looks like we might find out.

  7. At this point, trying to open transit to competition may wind up harming the overall cause of privatization.

    So, privatizing would harm the cause of privatizing? WTF?

    1. Yeah, if its going to collapse anyway, why should privatization get the blame?

      1. Post hoc ergo propter hoc.

      2. Fuck You, that’s why?

    2. This is why I don’t want a libertarian anywhere near a powerful office for the next 10-20 years. What do you think a libertarian could do about the SS/Medicare problem? Those programs are doomed no matter what. Sure a libertarian would do the right thing and give terminate the programs with extreme prejudice, but everyone who benefited from that system would say “see, this is what happens when free marketers get in office!”

      Same thing with choo choos. They are failing. Let them fail on their own. We don’t need to give them any help, and we don’t need any of the blame.

      1. Kristen up there apparently lives in DC, which puts her close to EVERY powerful office. Do we have to stone her, or would a simple shunning do?

        1. Libertarians don’t stone people. We whip them with our riding crops.

          1. Of course. Riding crops don’t damage your property.

          2. and cut them with our damaged monocle glasses.

  8. Some figuring on the cost of the light rail line here in seattle put it at about $7700 per inch. A lot of bucks to whisk shitbums around the city.

    1. Dude, I’ll go do it for $1000 an inch. All day, every day.

  9. The libertarian solution to the problems of mass transit is not privatization, as in sell the failing monopoly to a private owner.


    The libertarian solution is to eliminate subsidies and eliminate legal barriers to competition.

    I don’t want to see light rail operated more efficiently. I want to see light rail killed by the competition of millions of entrepreneurs.

    1. This.

  10. Lots of people are thinking that self-driving cars (private vehicles and cabs) will eliminate the need for mass-transit-as-we-know-it. Maybe so. But such vehicles will still operate on open, public streets. Malfunctions could pose dangers to other types of traffic, and the randomness of that other traffic (including manually-driven cars) can pose dangers to the auto-autos and their passengers. It makes sense to separate high speed traffic from low-speed, big, clumsy vehicles from small, nimble ones, automatically driven vehicles from manually operated ones. Of course, having separate infrastructures for all the different classes of traffic (including foot traffic) is usually prohibitively expensive or infeasible for various other reasons. The problems inherent in maintaining multiple transportation infrastructures can only hasten the predicted collapse of mass-transit. Yet the alternative seems to be to mix all kinds of traffic together on one network of streets — an approach that is clearly fraught with its own problems and dangers.

    I think a balance will need to be found, between the number of different levels of transportation infrastructure we can build and maintain, and the number of different modes of transportation that those separate facilities can support (thus increasing individual convenience in getting from A to B). (more in reply comment)

    1. I think that what we have historically known as “streets” will and should eventually return primarily to pedestrians and human-powered (or, at least, human scale) traffic: skates/skateboards, bicycles and pedicabs, Segways and similar vehicles, etc. Special, wider, reinforced streets would serve for trucks and commercial deliveries. But the basic, medium-to-long range getting around from point A to B of people without heavy luggage, packages, or other cargo should be handled via a facility that is dedicated to that purpose, a separate infrastructure that is as inexpensive, inobtrusive, and flexible as possible. If we could snap our fingers and make it so, the pneumatic tube system of Futurama — or even teleportation stations — would serve wonderfully. But here in the real world, in the early 21st century, can any approach to moving a lot of people around efficiently via minimal infrastructure fill the bill?

      I think that the approach known as PRT (Personal Rapid Transit) can meet all requirements and be deployed to our benefit sooner, rather than later. One very good implementation of the PRT idea has been serving passengers for over a year at Heathrow Airport: ULTra’s “Heathrow Pods,” which currently run between Terminal 5 and its long-term parking structure ( (More in reply comment, below)

      1. I oppose the ideas of transportation being provided by the government or subsidized from tax revenues. I have never liked riding crowded (or empty!) streetcars, light rail cars, or buses. I most certainly do not like the disruption caused by road or rail construction, much less the costs of these activities. So why am I optimistic about PRT? Here are the key reasons, which are, conveniently enough, demonstrated by the experience of the Heathrow Pods project:

        1. PRT is economical to construct and operate in comparison with other modes of transportation: Latest construction cost estimates are under $20M per mile, including infrastructure, access points (stops), and rolling stock. Roads alone can cost less per mile than PRT, however…

        2. PRT infrastructure is lightweight and has small-footprint. The ULTra approach, used at Heathrow, is acknowledged as having the bulkiest infrastructure of feasible, modern PRT systems. Yet its guideways are comparable in size to the medium-sized concrete footbridges we erect over freeways. Roads are usually two or more lanes wide; PRT guideways can be much narrower while carrying equivalent traffic. Approaches other than ULTra’s allow for smaller, lighter, less expensive guideways yet. Also, PRT guideways tend to be elevated, so that they actually occupy less right-of-way on the ground than if they were at-grade. Thus, PRT guideways fit snugly into neighborhoods where constructing or widening streets is infeasible.

        (more in reply message)

        1. 3. PRT cars drive themselves and are electric, deriving huge savings on both fuel and personnel expense.

          These first three reasons make me hopeful that PRT systems can be established by private companies and run by them at a profit, even if charging fares that are similar to what buses and light rail collect now. The primary (and considerable!) obstacles to such developments come from the regulatory impediments that Jerry Brown is trying to sidestep in his push for California’s High Speed Rail, for which many say ridership estimates are way overstated.

          I am optimistic about PRT’s ability to attract riders (and seduce people out of their cars for many, though not all, trips) for the following reasons:

          4. PRT offers direct, non-stop service from point of system entry to point of system exit. The places where passengers enter or exit vehicles (“stops” or “System access points”) are off the mainline, so vehicles only need to stop when picking up or dropping off riders. Even if the vehicles travel at only 25-40 MPH on the average, this will still result in shorter trips than provided by trains or buses that need to make frequent stops. Did you know BART’s average speed is only 33MPH?

          (more comments in subsequent reply post)

          1. 5. Vehicles are small, holding between 2 and 6 people (depending on system design approach). People travel alone or together in small, intimate groups of friends or family who share the same points of origination and destination. The vehicles are always clean and in good repair (you can reject an undesirable vehicle and another will be available to you in a minute or two). The small size of vehicles helps contribute to security and comfort, as well as the lightweight infrastructure of the system.

            6. Riders don’t wait for vehicles; usually vehicles wait for riders and are immediately available, or, at worst, arrive after only a minute or so of delay.

            Public transit riders hate transfers, waiting for vehicles, crowding, long trip times, badly maintained or vandalized vehicles, and lack of comfort and security. PRT riders never need to transfer, if the system is laid out correctly, riders’ points of origination or destination will never be more than a half-block away from a system access point and personal-sized vehicles will be waiting for them when they arrive, ready to take them directly to their destination in just a few minutes, safely and in comfort.

            (concludes in next reply post)

            1. The reaction to the Heathrow Pods has been so positive that the Airport has been able to charge a premium to park in the T5 long-term structure (with Pod rides being “free”). Also, the system has been extremely safe and reliable. Naysayers and pooh-poohers, who were full of criticism before the system opened, have grown more and more silent in the face of continuing positive passenger experience.

              Mass transit — available to the public — need not be public (government owned and operated) transit. Using the PRT approach, and with fair cooperation and accommodation by governments, private parties can establish and operate “mass-transit” that works, giving the person who needs to get from A to B an attractive, often much preferable way to travel than by personal auto, cab, bus, train, trolley, walking, or other modes. I think PRT can be a popular, self-supporting transportation option, especially within a local or regional area, for millions, including many who happily own (and will continue to own) automobiles. But I also think its can increase the mobility and comfort, and optimize the time, of many who don’t have automobiles. Finally, PRT, insofar as it becomes popular, can only help reduce congestion on our roads, not to mention our use of scarce, valuable (or pollution-causing) fuel, and can help us return land now employed (or contemplated) for roadways to other valuable and worthwhile uses (housing, parks, businesses, agriculture, etc.).

  11. One last comment, relative to the long PRT essay above: Although my hope is that the private sector can lead the way and be the principal player here, I understand that governments, via the regulatory thickets they have created in the transportation segment of the economy, are likely to get their hands in the pie one way or the other. As long as that is the case, however, I am hopeful that adoption of PRT for “public transit” will dramatically lower costs (and hence, the need for taxpayer subsidy) of public transportation systems, as well as reduce governments’ exposure to public-sector labor union shenanigans, including boondoggles involving benefits and pensions, which threaten to beggar governments across the country. If they ARE going to spend my tax dollars, then let them spend those dollars wisely, so that we the people get the most value for the least expense. Giving fair consideration to PRT approaches in public transit would be a big step in that right direction.

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